Uzbekistan revisited

The murder of an Uzbek journalist is a stark reminder of the repressive nature of the Karimov regime

On 22 October, journalist Alisher Saipov told friend and colleague Shahida Yakub he thought he was being followed by Uzbek security services. Two days later he was dead, shot as he left his office in Osh, a town situated close to the Uzbek border in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

Saipov was the founder and editor of the newspaper Siyosat, or Politics. His was the only Uzbek language newspaper in the region that was openly critical of President Islam Karimov’s autocratic government.

This repressive regime severely restricts the media. A number of foreign news websites have been blocked. Independent journalists, political opponents and human rights activists are routinely harassed, often imprisoned, and even tortured.

"Naturally, Siyosat could not be openly sold in Uzbekistan," explains Yakub, who also represents the Uzbek Initiative group in London. "But we’ve received reports that copies were being smuggled in, across the border.

“Alisher’s writings made him state enemy number one. In a recent programme, Uzbek regional TV accused him of attempting to destabilise Uzbekistan.

“The president is not willing to take any chances ahead of the December elections. He is as determined as ever to root out all opposition and challenge. Alisher knew he was in danger, but was determined to highlight the plight of the Uzbek people. It cost him his life,” says Yakub, who blames the Karimov government for the murder.

President Karimov came to power in what was described by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as a “seriously marred” election. A series of fraudulent elections and referendums have extended his 16-year rule.

He refused to step down when his term expired in January 2007 and will be seeking re-election this December, despite a constitutional clause that forbids the president from serving a third term in office.

“Although Alisher was not directly advocating regime change, he was trying to highlight the pressing need for change,” says Yakub.

“The human rights situation in Uzbekistan is dire and discontent is rife. This was laid out in the open for the world to see during the Andijan killings.”

That was when, in May 2005, government troops opened fire on a gathering in Andijan town square. The president claimed the troops had been responding to “dangerous Islamic militants”. He put the death toll at less than 200.

But human rights groups claim that the gathering consisted of mostly unarmed civilians protesting against the Karimov regime. They estimate up to 1000 people may have been killed.

Up until the massacre, Uzbekistan had been a key ally in the ‘war on terror’. US aid to Uzbekistan shot up post 9/11. America was provided with use of an air base near the southern town of Khanabad.

In 2004, British soldiers travelled to Uzbekistan to train with the Uzbek army. UN and NGO reports documenting human rights abuses in Uzbekistan were largely ignored.

In fact, Uzbekistan is believed to have been one of the destination countries for the US’ extraordinary renditions programme, whereby terrorist suspects are transferred for interrogation to regimes that sanction torture.

But following an international outcry over Andijan, the US called for an independent inquiry into the shootings. The Karimov government refused. It signalled its displeasure by ordering the US to vacate the Uzbek air base.

The EU - which had backed calls for an inquiry - imposed a number of sanctions on Uzbekistan. These included an embargo on arms sales, a freeze on bilateral talks, and a visa ban on 12 Uzbek officials suspected of involvement in the Andijan shootings.

The past year, however, has seen the sanctions progressively eased. The latest reversal came earlier this month, when travel restrictions on eight officials were suspended, “with a view to encouraging the Uzbek authorities to…improve the human rights situation”.

But the move also comes amid fears that the sanctions have simply served to push Uzbekistan closer to Russia and China, and are eroding EU influence in the energy-rich, strategically important region.

An EU spokesman said: “A number of somewhat conflicting objectives have had to be balanced here.

“The thinking is that Uzbekistan has recently made some progress. There have been two rounds of expert level talks on the Andijan events. A human rights dialogue between the EU and Uzbekistan has been established, and the death penalty has been abolished.

“The EU concluded that the best way forward would be to engage with the Uzbek government, rather than isolate it.”

But human rights groups think otherwise. They see “talks” as a poor substitute for an independent inquiry, and claim that Uzbekistan is still one of the most repressive regimes in the region.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International (AI) noted that at least 13 human rights activists were still in prison, despite repeated calls for their release.

It also revealed that Uzbek authorities had refused to impose a moratorium on executions, despite the abolition of the death penalty.

AI concluded that the establishment of the dialogue lacked credibility “if at the same time Uzbek authorities can continue to commit gross violations with impunity”.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the suspension as a travesty.

Rachel Denber, deputy director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia division, said: “The EU is giving up critical leverage. It is sending out the wrong signal to repressive regimes who will think that the consequences of their brutality will be minimal.

“It is placing economic and geo-strategic concerns over human rights. The EU claims that it will work with Uzbekistan to improve its human rights record, but apart from dialogue, has yet to come up with any concrete strategy.

“If prior elections are anything to go by, then the human rights situation will only deteriorate in coming months.”

Shahida Yakub agrees. “Things can only get worse from here on,” she said. “The murder of a dedicated journalist would suggest that the crackdown on dissent has already begun.”

Vidisha Biswas specialised in literature before deciding to pursue a career in journalism. Her interests include human rights, foreign politics, music and philosophy.
Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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